Yesterday I went to a talk by my young colleague Clémentine Beauvais whose current research is about gifted children. The talk was about gifted children and pushy parents, and it provoked two strands of reflections. Was I a gifted child and were my parents pushy? Are my children gifted and are we pushy parents?
Since my parents are dead I can share my views without reservations. I probably wasn't a gifted child by the standards defined in Clémentine's research, but I was clearly above the average. I was bilingual, I could read at five and started writing stories before I could read (I scribbled something down that I then read aloud). I was forced to practice the piano when I was six – here comes the pushy parents bit. I believe it was rather pushy grandparents, but everybody in the family were musicians, so I never questioned it, simply hated it. Wasn't it obvious for my parents that I was a word person, not a music person? I love music and cannot imagine my life without music, but practising scales wasn't my thing. When I stopped I was told that I would one day regret it, but I never did.
In school I was expected to be a high achiever, full stop. Straight As. I wouldn't be punished for a occasional A-, like some of my classmates, but I knew I was a disappointment. When I in Year 5 had one A- in my annual report and didn't, as usual, win a book and a diploma for “academic excellence and good behaviour”, I was absolutely devastated.
Not to mention the tragedy when I had one A- in my final exams and didn't win a gold medal “like everybody in the family”.
I have already told the story of my parents' disappointment in my choice of education, but they kept telling me that I could still amend it by graduate studies. “Everybody in the family” had a PhD before 30. My mother was late, 36, but she was excused because she had to ditch an almost complete thesis for political reasons. I also got my PhD late, just as late as my mother, but I had to ditch an almost complete PhD because I moved countries. My parents were unimpressed. “Everybody in the family” in three generations was a professor, so I'd better apply myself.
I don't know whether they were pushy parents by Clémentine's standards, but they certainly pushed me toward the edge more than once, for better and for worse.
When it comes to my children and my own parenting, it becomes more sensitive, so I'll proceed with caution. With my first-born, I was so young that pushes still came more from my parents than myself. They didn't help me, a single mother, in the everyday, but they would borrow my son to show off to their friends, making him learn and recite long, grownup poems. They – or we, since I silently agreed – forced him to play the piano, which he hated. I took him out of the nursery school twice a week to ride the underground to the other end of the city for skating classes, which we both hated, but I was being an exemplary mother.
My mother had wild ideas that she pushed onto me. At one point she decided that Sergej should learn slalom skiing. The closest, very primitive resort for this exclusive sport was three or four hours by train from Moscow. My mother suggested that I take him there on Saturdays, sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag, eat picnic dinner, breakfast and lunch, let him ski in the morning and come back in the afternoon. She was really disappointed when I rejected this brilliant idea. (Many years later Sergej spent two winters as a ski instructor in Chamounix, so he didn't miss on skiing).
With our Swedish children we were pushy or supportive, depending how you look at it. We took them to piano, cello, trumpet and ballet classes, football and basket training; children's activities at the Museum of Modern Art; we encouraged stamp collecting, sailing, summer drama camps, photography (with a lab in the cellar). I believe that we became less pushy with the youngest, simply having no energy left, but when he wanted to play American football in school in California, which required a special medical check-up, not to mention equipment, we obliged. I don't remember why it didn't happen after all.
Academic achievements were a problem. Julia could read at three and was a voracious reader. She was bored to death in school and was bullied. Unfortunately, the Swedish school system provides excellent support for children with special needs, but has no room for gifted children. When Julia was nine I went to see her class teacher and school councillor and told them that my daughter was exxtra gifted. They said all parents said that. I suggested that the councillor had professional skills to test my daughter's abilities. He did. She scored, as he reluctantly admitted, well above him. I asked him what he was going to do about it. He told me there was nothing he could do because the Swedish school system had no provision for gifted children. I said I would home-school her. He told me it was illegal. I reminded him that my husband was a journalist. He shut up.
I allowed Julia to stay at home and take care of her education as she pleased. At that moment I knew that I was going to the USA for six months and would take her along. In her school in Amherst, Massachusetts, she was top of her class in English after a month. She became competitive and happy. When we came back to Sweden, we reluctantly, against our beliefs, put her in a private school where she was allowed to study at her own capacity. We also moved Anton to the same school.
When we enrolled them in high school in California, the person who constructed their schedules suggested pottery and home economics. I said no, my children would take Advanced English, Advanced History, Advanced Foreign Languages, Advanced everything, and if there was something still more advanced they would take that as well. They told me that AP would incur costs for the exam. I said I was quite happy to make the investment. I guess this makes me a pushy parent.
Of course, I have no idea what they really thought, but I believe they enjoyed school that was a challenge. Julia won every possible and impossible award at graduation; regrettably, since we were not residents she could not get the monetary part of the awards, otherwise any American University would be open for her.
Instead, she had to take a test in Swedish to qualify for Swedish higher education and failed because she didn't remember which effing bird Miss Julie had in effing Strindberg's effing drama. Someone suggested that she she had gone to a school abroad she could take a test in Swedish as a second language. There, it was enough to be able to read a newspaper ad.
Gifted children and pushy parents is a social construct, says Dr Beauvais, and I agree. Yet behind every social construct there are thousands of real people, and no fate is like another fate.